Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Spiderwick Chronicles: Enchanted land

The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for fantasy violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.21.08

Nickelodeon continues its impressive run of high-quality family films, with a handsomely mounted and highly entertaining adaptation of The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the cleverly packaged quintet of books by artist/author Tony DiTerlizzi and author Holly Black.

After his brother is kidnapped by goblins, Jared (Freddie Highmore) and his
new friend, Hogsqueal, watch with mounting horror as the other boy is
questioned by the sinister ogre who rules the forest.
Young readers who've exhausted the Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket titles are bound to enjoy this saga (really only one book divided into five easily digestible chapters). And while it's inevitable, in our post-Potter world of youth-oriented fantasy, that all "new" books get compared to J.K. Rowling, that isn't terribly fair to DiTerlizzi and Black.

The Spiderwick Chronicles, published in 2003, stands quite well on its own. By design, the story is more American and comfortably contemporary than most fantasy titles for young readers, and DiTerlizzi's lovely line art plays a major role in the narrative's enchantment factor. Indeed, I haven't seen a young reader's book so perfectly married to its artwork since Garth Williams' illustrations graced E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little.

The film adaptation, which contains a bit more depth and angst than most so-called children's films, comes from Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and — here's a surprise! — indie filmmaker John Sayles, who usually only works on his own projects. But it's a natural fit: Sayles explored Irish fables and mystical creatures superbly with his own 1994 film, The Secret of Roan Inish, which remains one of the gentlest and most beautifully rendered all-ages fantasy films I've ever seen.

The adaptation of Spiderwick concentrates of books one and five in the set, pretty much abandoning the additional creatures and narrative complexities found in books two through four, but that's all right; Kirkpatrick, Berenbaum and Sayles deftly capture the tone and spirit of the entire saga. (Young readers hoping to meet the river troll, the phooka and the forest elves may feel differently.)

The film also draws considerable power from the impressive performances delivered by 15-year-old Freddie Highmore, continuing the splendid body of work that began with Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And that's "performances," plural, because in Spiderwick he plays identical twins Jared and Simon Grace.

It's not merely a matter of superb special-effects work, although the scenes involving both boys are amazing. Highmore crafts two dissimilar personalities that are so distinct that at times, even knowing better, I thought I was watching two different actors. Jared and Simon look quite the same, and yet they also look different, and it's more than the clothes and the hair. Depending on which boy he's playing, Highmore modulates his body movements: the way he stands, tilts his head, uses his eyes to probe a darkened corner or somebody else's expression.

Highmore's work moves beyond "gimmick" and becomes wholly accepted by us viewers. He's good enough that, were Oscar-like awards granted to children's films, he'd deserve to be nominated for both roles.

The story begins as the boys, their older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and their mother (Mary-Louise Parker), the latter fleeing a fractured marriage, move into the isolated and dilapidated estate formerly owned by their distant uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) and, subsequently, great-aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright). The tense family dynamic isn't helped at all by Jared, who blames his mother for everything and has a chip on his shoulder the size of a redwood burl.

The house has ... secrets. A hidden dumbwaiter leads up to a concealed study, where Jared finds Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. Ignoring a note warning that any who find the book should avoid reading it (yeah, right!), Jared plunges into its pages and emerges with the dread suspicion that the contents aren't fabricated hooey. This becomes clear when he meets the estate's resident house brownie, Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), a 9-inch-tall mischief-maker with a fondness for honey and speaking in rhymed riddles.

Although also graced with a temper that occasionally causes him to transform into a somewhat uglier boggart, Thimbletack is one of the good guys: not so the nasty, rotund goblins that do the bidding of Mulgarath, a malevolent ogre who wants Spiderwick's book and its secrets, in order to take over the world as we know it.

Jared, with his reputation for bad behavior, isn't believed at first. Little wonder, since all these fantastical creatures can't be seen unless they allow it ... or unless one peers through a special rock that gives "the sight."

Simon and Mallory come around fairly quickly, particularly when the former gets hauled off by goblins, and the latter — who loves to fence — winds up dueling with some of them. The difficulties of sharing that one sight-granting rock are erased after the kids encounter Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogan), a hobgoblin — not to be confused with goblins, he indignantly insists — who has his own way of permanently bestowing "the sight" to recipients of his choosing.

The moment I read that passage in the book, with its wonderfully yucky description of the magical powers of hobgoblin spit — and its application — I knew it'd be used in the movie. Kids adore that sort of mild gross-out, and last week's preview audience erupted with a cacophony of delighted youthful "Ewwwwws" when Hogsqueal did his thing.

The battle seems unevenly joined, though, particularly since Thimbletack is too small to be of much use, and the cowardly Hogsqueal is easily distracted by any fluttering birds that he'd like to savor as lunch. Mulgarath, on the other hand, has hundreds upon hundreds of goblins to do his bidding. (Imagine an army of Joe Dante's nasty gremlins, with weight issues.)

The only possible hope lies with additional details to be found within Arthur Spiderwick's book.

The sibling dynamic is well-grounded, and Parker delivers a credible performance as a woman who, nearly at the end of her tether, wants only what is best for her children ... and now must contend with ridiculous stories of goblins and ogres. Jared's petulance is amped up a bit for this movie, however; he's much nastier to his mother here, and one verbal exchange is downright vicious. The boy does have cause, but what seemed more reasonable on the printed page sounds too strident in the film.

Director Mark Waters (Freaky Friday, Mean Girls) paces his film efficiently, establishing characters and backstory with a solid first act, and building to an exciting climax. The many creatures are brought to life perfectly, and if the epilogue is more Hollywood-happy than the book ... well, it still feels acceptable.

Waters also wisely includes the occasional use of sketches and illustrations from Spiderwick's Field Guide, as Jared leaves through its pages, and these drawings quite faithfully reflect DiTerlizzi's artistic influence.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is a lot of fun, and — most importantly — it neither talks down to younger viewers, nor insults their older companions. And, perhaps encouraged by the production of this film, DiTerlizzi and Black recently released The Nixie's Song: Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles, leaving us the hope that this adventure, too, one day might make its way to the big screen.

Count me in.

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